Monday, June 27, 2011

CONFESSIONS OF AN ALASKAN SCREENWRITER, the Finale: A Guest Post by James McLain

Before I go further in my cautionary tale, I need to harken back to one further lesson I learned from the vampire script I discussed in my last blog. There is a rule of thumb that each page of a script equates to about one minute of film time. Thus, when I wrote my script, I saw nothing wrong with writing a significant number of scenes outdoors in Alaska in the winter. I mean if they were only two or three pages long how hard could it be? The answer is very hard and very ugly. A two or three page scene can sometimes take two or three days to film; two or three very cold, hard, twelve hour days with a wonderful cast and crew trying valiantly to not have non-replaceable parts freeze off. I love actors and I think the crew people I have worked with are the best. Even though they proved to be willing to spend many long hours outdoors in Alaska in the winter trying to put my words on film, I learned not to abuse them like that if there was any way to write around it. As Elvis so famously sang, “Don’t be cruel.”

Back to my story:        

Next, I wanted to write something a bit more epic. I decided to write an action-adventure tale. Nonetheless, not wanting to repeat my earlier mistake of writing an expensive period piece, I set it in modern Alaska. Being a very quick writer, about six weeks after I started, I presented my shiny new script to another director friend of mine. He read it and loved it. Again, who knew? He immediately optioned it (for basically nothing.) I thought, “Great, now I can have an action film made.” It was at this moment that my friend said, “Now, we just need to raise 35 or 40 million dollars to make the film.” I wondered out loud how that was possible. I mean, it wasn’t a period piece. He patiently explained that my script was basically a sort of travelogue of Alaska. It had boats and planes and trains and car chases and explosions and all the standard props of a shoot-‘em-up film. It was set everywhere from Kodiak Island to the Yukon River and points in between.  Apparently, all that stuff is expensive; this was getting redundant.

I was also pretty much out of useful ideas. By that I mean I had plenty of ideas for scripts but all films would have cost a bazillion dollars to make. If I hadn’t been such a writing junky, I would have called it a day. Just to keep my hand in, I wrote a couple of more short films and posted them in the internet. Nothing happened and I was frankly almost convinced that nothing ever would. I had been writing for two and a half years, had two short films made, had optioned two of the five feature scripts I had written at that point, and had a film based on a third script about half done. Unfortunately, I had also made a total of eighteen dollars from my writing during the same period. On one hand, I was a rousing success. Apparently, a lot of people liked my writing. On the other hand, after more than two years work, I had not made enough to even take my wife out for a good dinner. Then one day I got an email from a guy in Virginia who wanted to buy one of my shorts; he wanted to know how much. I told him one hundred dollars. I mean it only took me about three hours to write. He sent me a check. It wasn’t much, but somehow it gave me the encouragement to go on.

I looked around for another idea for a script. I looked in books, magazines, on the internet, everywhere . . . for the idea for a new script that would meet all the criteria I had established for making a sellable script. It needed to be set in modern times, not have too many characters, have no car chases or other expensive add-ons, be located more or less in one area, and it needed to be in a genre I had not yet used. I didn’t want to get stuck writing just one type of movie; doing that limits your market.            

Then one day I found an article on the net that gave me an idea for a courtroom drama/thriller. Since I had been an attorney in my past life, I knew a lot about Alaska criminal law. I wrote another feature script. One of my director friends read it, optioned it for basically no money, and told me that it could be made for around a million dollars. That amount, he said, was doable. It sat around for most of a year while my friend and I tried everything to get interest in the film. Then, one day, I got a call from Ed Asner. It seemed that a mutual acquaintance had gotten him the script, he had read it, he loved it, and he wanted to play the lead in my movie. Now, more than a year later, we have apparently raised the money for the movie. (I’ll be a real believer when I get a check). We are scheduled to start filming on October third. A film I wrote is going to star an actor who has won seven Emmy awards. Very cool! It seems I am an overnight success . . . And it only took four years of hard work, anguish, and worry.

I’m still writing. The last lesson learned: Don’t give up.

Aspiring screenwriters are invited to attend the 49 Writers Screenwriting Roundtable with visiting screenwriter Dave Hunsaker on July 11 at 6:30 p.m. at Out North Contemporary Art House, 3800 DeBarr Rd. in Anchorage. Registration is required.
  














2 comments:

Anonymous said...

For hero's journey / screenwriting, go see Kal Bashir's excellent 510+ stage version at http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

James, Thanks for addressing the practicalities of making movies, including the costs of both period pieces and action sequences. These have been informative posts!